In 2014 visiting home for Eid just before the floods ravaged much of Srinagar City and the vale, I found myself sipping coffee with a couple of acquaintances at the famed city restaurant ‘The Hideout’. Call me a cynic, even as the discussion hovered around how the society was attaining a measure of intellectual/literary autarky, I took their self-congratulatory paeans with a pinch of salt. What I did come across in these personal interactions was a Peter Pan world-view. The culture of intellectuality with its debatable quality – spawned esp. by the social media and elsewhere- being bragged about and glossed was anything but autarky. Turning Derrida and Iqbal overnight into convenient punch-lines or Edward Said wannabes with their compulsive lightweight writings and penchant for mundane celebrity hood sprouting like wild weeds or proudly morphing into native informants for every tom dick and harry writing mediocre treatises on the conflict was neither the beginning nor progression of a genuine intellectual culture. While others disagreed I was insistent and all the more clear that adoption of a self-inquiring attitude was a must, so that we again aren’t saddled with farrago of hammy pretenders and self-congratulatory pseudo-intellectuals whose ambitions hover being seen rather than being the genuine dedicated thinkers totally consumed by their search for themselves, trying to understand the predicaments and the times they live in.
Mr. Muzaffar Shawl, the owner of restaurant known to be a no mean intellectually curious sort -and an attendant observer of times and lives and whose friends circle included the celebrated poet Agha Shahid Ali- interjected even as the discussion pitch turned shrill remarking that evolution takes time and I perhaps expected too much from people whose capabilities precluded such a lofty undertaking at this juncture. He asked my address and the moment I blurted Safakadal, He asked whether I knew Nazir Gaash.
I nodded my head in assent. Even as the other chaps turned their attention to this side-conversation, Mr. Shawl confided of the many times Nazir Gaash’s analytical sweep and astonishingly immense knowledge of the western philosophical oeuvre left him exasperated and fumbling for an engaging response.
My mental clock rewound years back. Yes, I knew Nazir Gaash.
Descending the Safakadal Bridge, the first lane on the left, his decrepit corner side provision shop still survives. A careful glance on its billboard title reveals the words Edible Link; an eminently unusual name for a store in this part of the town has survived the depredations of time and fate. Today, the shop sports an empty look, bereft of the crowds that thronged it for two or more decades from its humble beginnings in 1970s.
Back in the late 1970s, a time when social conservatism and religious orthopraxy were a norm, not the exception in much of downtown and Safakadal locality where we lived. A time when enforcement of social norms was prioritized by time tested maxims enforced by an unwritten rule of deference to elders. Mixing of genders was frowned upon; dating and elopement would earn swift censure and punishments. A gaze onto the streets would almost always fix itself on octogenarians whose snow- white beards and rosaries would make you surmise that religiosity was welded, to them like a second nature. They would usually making their customary rounds to the mosques aided by walking sticks in a greater frequency than the younger crowd.
But not many people then could have surmised that it was in such surroundings that the shop etched its name into the annals of Safakadal folklore along with its owner Nazir Gaash, a pioneering Leftist and a genuine intellectual.
One of my earliest childhood memories revolve around the protests that took hold in the vale as Zia-ul-Haq, the military ruler of Pakistan refused to pardon and rescind the death sentence of the deposed PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Protests erupted everywhere and effigies of Zia were hung and immolated from every nook and corner lamppost. Kids loitering the streets would construct mock cenotaph of Zia or stone it in an effort to mime the outrage of their elders.
It was in this upheaval that twenty something Nazir Gaash found himself confronting a dilemma. He had been designated for a goodwill visit to Hungary sponsored by the Communist Party, to use his words, to get an insight into the ‘workings of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ first hand. For some time his star had been on the rise within the card carrying communist circles. His high profile saw newbie leftists vying for his mentorship and senior communists seeking his counsel. Though no way a sniffy sort, he always harboured a condescending view of his contemporaneous comrades, the local card carriers and not without reason. Years later he would confide to me on his shop-front.
‘The valley communists in the 1970s were dunces no doubt! Their rank and file usually whittled their time discussing the samovar and pherans contriving imaginary cultural leanings and connections between the USSR and the Vale. They had repeatedly failed or demurred on providing any assistance or backing for the trade-union forays that we had initiated. But the way they pulled out all the stops organizing demonstrations protesting Bhutto’s death sentence confounded me.’
Even as the world leaders pressed Zia to pardon Bhutto, Gaash disgusted no less with the ‘comrades’ cancelled the Hungary visit and abruptly resigned from the Party in protest.
I guess he was uniquely poised to provide the value judgement he had. His early life had seen him ride its crests and troughs like no other. After his father passed away Gaash dropped out of college, and commenced plying his hereditary baker trade to keep the home kitchen fires burning. One would assume that poverty and interrupted education would deter intellectual pursuit or political aspiration, but Gaash was to defy this maxim. His sheer curiosity coupled with a desire to search within first led him to Marxism and then to Western philosophical corpus. Given razor sharp analytical sweep his autodidactic forays saw him morph into a Marxist ideologue within no time.
Srinagar in the 1970s was a city plagued by corruption, poverty, exploitation and savage social discrepancies; this realization spurred Gaash to do his bit. He teamed up with Late Hriday Nath Wanchoo1, a veteran selfless communist- later and indefatigable Human Rights activist- and together they laid the foundations of trade unionism in the vale. Together they ventured into the bastis of manual scavengers, and into their hovels listening to their woes. They helped mobilize municipality scavengers to organise their unions and seek better wages and work conditions. Within his own locality and beyond, Gaash was rapidly vilified by many as trying to turn impressionable scavengers into godless communists, but he laboured on until giving it all up in the spring of 1979.
This wasn’t the first time where his self-searching forays had ended in his giving up on them. Years before Gaash had briefly flirted with Buddhism, even venturing into monasteries in Ladakh. However, to his dismay he found he was confronting something else than individual enlightenment in organized Buddhism. ‘I realized the Sangham sharanam gacchami had acquired precedence over the Buddham sharanam gacchami and I was looking out for the latter’. So he packed his bags and came home. The religious lot couldn’t offer more than ‘fine tuning’ him rather than answer the questions of individual being and existential angst. As he opined one day that much to his chagrin post-colonial times had propelled religion trends everywhere into ideas that saw the community as a mark of identity and vector of political mobilization rather than emphasize the issues of the individual or individual self- realisation.
The profound disillusionment perhaps was too much to bear for Gaash, prompting his return to a laid back life in a sense. But I guess he ultimately found a measure of spiritual satisfaction in Philosophy of the Mind that Western thinkers propagated, and he pursued it with the entire intellectual wherewithal he possessed. In time the accretions of this pursuit supplanted the traces of religious faith of his forebears in the process.
His in-depth thinking brain, brimming with ideas, references and knowledge gave him strength but offered no protection from his travails that were also about to reveal themselves. In 1980 or a year later, a petty argument between one of his many friends and a cleric’s son at a riverside tea joint in Safakadal turned into a free for all brawl. Even as the clash got out of hand Gaash’s friend cranked a couple of pistol shots in anger to top it up.
The scuffle had broken in the context of a political discussion. Given the paternalist social set-up and the influence of his friend’s wealthy family it was Gaash, – absent at the scrimmage venue- who was marked for social crucifixion. Denounced as a corrupting influence on the younger generation by a gathering of elders, Gaash earned a tarq-i-mawalat (social & economic boycott) censure and death threats in their crass attempt to fracture and diminish his self. But he refused to move out of the locality and persevered, and with help of his ardent admirers picked up the pieces of his life again. Years on the anguish, the terrible sense of humiliation, and disrepute bred by these cruel public events hung on around, relegated to some semi-visible corner of the shop like some memorialized bad dream.
In its halcyon days, Edible Link attracted all and sundry who lent their ears to the discussions, the barbs, shared jokes and indulgent sophisticated ribbing, all under the watchful gaze, sharp wit and keen intellect of Nazir Gaash. As I trudged home from school and vice-versa every day, my infantile world view envisaged Gaash -even as he was minding his store he would have one or the other journal in his hand- as a magazine addict. Among newspapers, Statesman was his favourite. But then again it was perplexing to gel my opinion of him given the very hard not to notice crowds massed in and around the shop next to our bus stop. In an air suffused with aroma of tea and pungent cigarette smoke, people of variant mental predilections and ideological hues: From guitar wielding-jeans sporting dandy liberals, to khadi wearing jholawala leftist crowd, religious right-wingers with their avowed missionary zeal out to fine tune Gaash and stymie his straying from path, and plain schlubs gawking in amazement as Gaash indulged his wonderfully articulate and generous explainer persona weaving variegated discourses encompassing everything from Marx to Nietzsche, Heiddeger to Teilhard de Chardin, Kant, Hegel and Sartre, from Middle Eastern politics to Western Hemisphere’s woes, the recent political histories and the post-colonial angst and the subaltern themes.
On holidays, he would hop onto a scooter dressed in his hallmark Khadi kurta and jeans with a jhola bag slung across his shoulders, making his way to the famed Coffee Shop on Srinagar’s Residency Road, engaging a smattering of genuine intellectual sorts in search of themselves, pamphleteers, sophists, pseudos’ and throng cinemas to watch art genre films.
My arrival at the shop-front as a teen was a far cry from my school boy days when much to the chagrin of my mum I would rake in huge bills buying chocolates and chips at the shop. Given my presumably ‘good’ English harvested on the hallowed grounds of the local Irish catholic institution I tried hard to figure out the arguments of ‘Being and Existence’ being bandied about by people on the shop-front without much success. Nonetheless in the subsequent exceedingly bright downtown summers and harsh winters, Gaash paved my way into what he termed the ‘World of Ideas’ introducing me to Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, and Sartre. I still fondly remember how he passed on books he had read and wanted me to read: Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, Doyestovsky’s ‘Brothers Karamazov’ and most importantly Turgenev’s ‘Virgin Soil’ and Fathers and Sons’, books so afflicted with existential angst as to heighten awareness of the self and change your world-view permanently. I read poetry of Nazim Hikmat, Faiz, Walt Whitman and Noon Meem Rashid among others, which was fascinating. I couldn’t bring myself to admire much of J. Krishnamurti whom Gaash had recently discovered.
Gaash always described himself as a nihilist and as an anarcho-syndicalist, I am not sure how many of the people thronging the shop related to his self-image or grasped the import of these terms. Within his own kindred the joke went that had Gaash realized his potential, the rest of the world wouldn’t have known Tariq Ali. These professionals, from engineers to academics to professional cricketers and even a lone merchant navy man felt stifled and alienated from the society they were born into and no longer identified with its identitarian mores or brand of politics that construed any forays into intellectualism as ‘blasphemous’ and ‘individualism’ as traitorous. In Gaash, with his rigorous self-awareness and candour and over-arching aversion to paternalism, provided them a vent, an outlet. They were reverentially drawn towards his belief in the Individual, the power of an individual, his inalienable sacredness. They locked their steps with his phenomenally coherent ad-libbing and an open mind-set impressed by the way he saw through social poses and poseurs, shunned social spaces which placed a premium on mediocrity, undeserved success, sinecures, and not to forget remained unimpressed by the plenty of cocky grins, platitudinous talk, clichés and mainstreamed ignorance borne of smug self-righteousness.
As I grew in years and like many others found myself stunned by both his analytical sweep and sharp intellect realizing that I was facing a very unique individual. I remember his discourses on black rights movement in the United States even as he anatomized Shelby Steele’s defence of Clarence Thomas’s nomination by the Clinton administration carried by the Time magazine, or his delving on Raymond Aron’s seminal book ‘The Opium of the Intellectuals’ and it hit me that Gaash was someone who had dared plunging into rarefied intellectual atmospheres that would have choked other lesser mortals to death or sent them on to the no man’s land of insanity. Emerging out from it saw him totally westernized in his outlook, his thought process painting a very wide canvas for his self to work on. Though Tariq Ali’s views and polemics mirrored Gaash own world view- which the latter once jokingly attributed to ‘being students of the same school and having partaken from the same brook’. Later on I came around to agree to his friend’s views, as I followed Tariq Ali polemics and politics closely in the UK, I realized Tariq lacked Gaash’s philosophical thought content that endowed the latter with an astute grasp of prescient political dialectics.
But there was downside to it too. The overwhelming mass of ignoramuses around decried Gaash-whose unceasing discursive analysis of self and everything around and their ‘excess baggage’ irked them -appending the usual ignorant demoralising stereotypes- a mutinous Christian neo-convert with arcane knowledge, an atheistic boffin, a malcontent- to his name. What he could be accused of really was being totally ambivalent towards their prejudices, scrimmages, their political schisms or their stagnant cultural and literary mores.
An exaggeratedly immature anti-intellectualism, borne of assumptions and primordial fears, pervaded the society which made sure that these labels stuck. While Gaash tried deflecting these accusations by trying to engage the accusers, but it did affect him. Though I never knew about it till he died, the social and family pressures pushed Gaash to the edge so often that he even contemplated suicide if a certain threshold had been crossed. To this end he availed a firearm on one of his visits to Bombay. Even as the insurgency broke out his friends in the know of this, had it forcibly taken away and thrown into the river to obviate chances of its recovery by troopers carrying out cordon operations or Gaash’s detention that would have been a foregone conclusion. Much later given my own propensity to sit around on the shop-front at every given opportunity it wasn’t long before a multitude of people made their way into my home to complain of my ‘wayward ways’ and Gaash’s ‘bad influence’ to my dad.
Gaash’s best time ended even as the insurgency broke out. A haze of melancholy and malaise hung over much of the city more particularly the downtown steeped in violence, pain and suffering. He was married now. This and the contemporary travails that any conflict engenders increased not only his worries and apprehension of being subjected to bodily harm for his previous political affiliations but also threatened the joys of domestic bliss and expectant fatherhood. Financial insecurity also dogged him, the burning down of the Safakadal Bridge in 1990 had whittled down the number of his customers and the uncertainty of violent outbreaks too played their part. He continued to run his pyend staying wisely private, employing subtle tones and avoiding new controversies. One of the persisting images still etched on my memory is a pheran clad Gaash walking the Seki-dafar road carrying a marble cenotaph for his young brother-in-law, a young militant who had been shot dead in an internecine clash, even after a truce had been called in. I found Gaash his stoic self even that day. A few years down his elder brother and two nephews died in a car crash, months on Gaash had that teary unreflective eyed look, a sure sign that these deaths were relentlessly preying on his mind.
In the meantime, I joined medical school. In course of time, the discussions and discourses resumed and the pyend (shop-front) bloomed again as if stardust had been sprinkled around on it by some fairy godmother. But in these stygian war time, there was a relentless push by all and sundry -even previous detractors stunned by the violence and dissolution of societal moorings because of the conflict- making a beeline to become a part of the shop-front crowd. Many a times on Gaash’s direction I and many of his other friends would find themselves engaging prospective aspirants to figure out if they made the grade or were incontrovertible time wasters.
Then there were the many released pioneer militant from the locality lot who Gaash confessed years later did not want to be seen with him in public but would furtively seek his counsel and help in an attempt to understand what they had gone through or as to what was happening around. Traumatised by their experiences in and out of jail and notorious interrogation centres, this lot was finding it hard to pick up the pieces and start lives afresh. Their persistent interest and queries about the life and times of Regis Debray and Che Guevara had left Gaash especially amused. It was after his death that I came to know that Gaash had been relentlessly approached, many a times pestered and cajoled to throw in his lot with the separatist political over-ground and contribute his opinions but Gaash’s self-counsel had seen him repeatedly demur every-time.
At my own level I saw myself coming of age at least intellectually. In the throes of ongoing conflict, I discovered the relevance of Camus on that shop-front. The French philosopher’s work became a catalyst for the evolution of a definitive understanding of the world around me. Gaash, like a conscientious teacher would iron out doubts and mis-readings through his discourses. I fondly remember the time I began writing, and showed Gaash the hand written draft of my first short story. He read and returned the manuscript asking me to develop my own individual style rather than subconsciously mime my literary influences. ‘If you want to be a writer you should learn something from Robert De Niro’ he said. What a Hollywood actor can inspire in me, I asked, sitting on his shop-front. ‘Well there are many actors…. But there is only one Bob De Niro! He is his own man and he has his own style’. In hindsight I found that this small conversation with him would guide all my writing attempts in the future and also be my source of frustrating procrastination to go with it.
One day even as I related snippets gleaned from Albert Camus’s celebrated essay ‘The Rebel’-a book he passed to me early on -, which carried a scathing critique of communism within its pages, to Gaash. Reading it within the background of the dissolution of the USSR I enquired as to how he had reconciled himself with the failure of Marxism? He smilingly replied that it was the Communist State that had failed not Marxism. He opined that the Western rather than Eastern Europe had, not out of good faith gone on to become social democracies where citizenry enjoyed social security and free health and education without the repressive soul crunching so common in behind the curtain communist states which came close to what Marx had envisaged. As an example of the bad faith he reminded me of British PM Thatcher breaking the back of British coal unions in 1980s.
And many a times before when I watched him indulge in manual labour ferrying merchandise on his shoulders from the wholesalers to his outlet-he jokingly referred to it as nafsa paet– uncomplainingly smilingly I got it perfectly that what kept him going: it was his ideas and the social circle who understood him made up for what others thought was his immense lack of worldly level achievement. Almost everyone who came across Gaash, surmised that he would have been better off, productive and happy, teaching Philosophy in some reputed institution. I did ask him once whether he felt frustrated at his inability and the circumstances that precluded him from indulging in what he would have loved as his preferred vocation. He talked like a Zen master, saying that there were thousands out there in the world, like him, better than him who also never made it. What did matter was the answer to the question, whether he had lived in his mind enough to search around and find that elusive spark, that particular thought that spur ideations or ramifications that would help the world take a step. What didn’t matter was not being an intellectual rehashing thoughts of others but being part of an intelligentsia, and produce something original.
The years passed by. One day, while sitting at his shop in summer of 2002 in the middle of a discussion revolving around Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time,’ Gaash abruptly paused his discourse to talk about the futility of life .He confided that for some weeks the thoughts of being at the end of road, had overwhelmed him, tormenting him by questions of what had been left un-explored beyond the frontiers of the mind he had already traipsed. It was prescience that only an overtly brilliant mind could possess.
A few days later, I noticed a mandibular swelling on Gaash. The sight of it disturbed me but I reassured him and myself with a differential diagnosis of TB. The swelling turned maxillary cancer. Even as he prepared for a trip to Mumbai for treatment, he pulled me aside asking me in a hushed tone as to whether the surgical procedure would affect his mind and thought processes. This inquiry made me realize the tough self-understanding Gaash had and what he treasured the most even in the morbid presence of his cancer: his mind.
The trip saw him confront his condition; the malignant mass being an aggressively inoperable one. Everything went downhill afterwards, the cancer mets burrowed into his spine. I realized he was enduring the pain uncomplainingly envisaging it as a necessitate cost exacted by the assertion of his will to live. ‘I am trying hard to fight this cancer at the mental level’ he quipped once on one of his many icky radiotherapy trips in the hospital where I worked as a resident.
Many a times bedridden with diminished blood counts, he continued talking about things, and ideas that fascinated him. One of his sisters overcome with despair sought the help of her neighbour, an octogenarian spiritual healer sort, known to be aglow with over-arching mystical achievement. Gaash not wanting to offend his sister obliged. Ironically instead of seeking his healing powers the spiritualist found himself being engaged by Gaash on the concepts of super-consciousness and beyond and the questions of Creation v/s Evolution.
The spiritualist was also my dad’s friend. Few days later I hopped out to pick up my dad from his weekly sojourn to the Khanqah Mualla monastery. He stopped to say hello to the mystic sitting nearby at his shop. The mystic turned to me snappily remarking that my friend’s generic queries were actually so loaded that answering them was useless. Though I didn’t verbalise it I could speculate that the spiritualist – usually surrounded by an awed mass of people habituated to lapping up his banal talk and ponderous metaphor laden conversations- was irked by his own lack of verbal/intellectual wherewithal to transubstantiate his mystical perceptions into purely metaphysical terms that could have sounded satisfactorily coherent for someone of Gaash’s calibre.
The last time, I saw Gaash alive was at the hospital cancer ward. He had contracted severe pneumonia after his latest chemotherapy cycle. He didn’t look right or his fighting self. He joked about having literally ended up in Solzhenitsyn’s notoriously dissenting symbolic premise. Much as I would have wanted to stay I was in a rush that day and left hurriedly to attend a cousin’s wedding.
I returned home the next day to the news that Gaash had died soon after I had taken his leave, a few months shy of his fiftieth birthday. He had been buried the same evening. Ashraf, a mutual friend of ours, an overly religious school teacher who had endured a jail term in the aftermath of the 1987 election for being a MUF sympathiser, personally performed Gaash’s funerary wash and led his requiem prayers. Many a moist-eyed friends and family attending the wake, delivered heartfelt testimonials about Gaash’s evolved character, his quest for knowledge and living his lifelong under the penumbra of being perpetually misunderstood. Others outside brought up Gaash’s irreligiousness, agnosticism and communist past, questioning Ashraf as to whether his leading the wake and funeral prayers was a right decision to take. To this query Ashraf, one of the many guys whose feelings for their late friend always oscillated between awe and sympathy retorted pointing to Gaash’s innate religious convictions, which in his view many overtly religious people lacked. The reply was appropriate and satisfying enough because even these detractors vouched for Gaash’s honesty and truthfulness.
What I grasped while listening to Mr. Shawl was enlightening in the sense that the intellectual sorts in Gaash’s generation with their resolutely inward focus had self-realised. Their surreal journeys from varied Srinagar neighbourhoods to the seemingly foreign worlds of ideas and philosophy also saw them being averse to stake their hopes or claims of being the spine of their society’s intellectual conscience. On the other hand one can only surmise why they felt nothing even as they witnessed the many mediocre privilege seeking windbags, undeservedly successful pseudo-intellectuals and time serving sybarites whose patronage made them claim so while representing the thoughts or feelings of no one around. Imagining Gaash and his type crowd in such social milieu, I could have only imagined the levels to which their sensibility would have seen itself stretched thin as they saw themselves scrunched to the liminal margins, forcibly morphed into intellectual manqué lot.
Given the recurrent disturbances of last many years, a lot of books, columns and blogs signifying evolution in thought spheres came about. Venturing into any bookshop or the cyberspace, one finds books and write-ups on Kashmir and Kashmiris, by all and sundry, of both genders, natives and non-natives; some genuine ones, others employing neo-orientalist undertones, with some harbouring pretences of Olaf- Caroe clones, over exoticising the place and people; while others fervently commoditizing the conflict.
In Mid-2014, at an art gallery exhibition in New Delhi exhibiting an Australian modernist painter’s work, an artist friend introduced a slim baby faced individual to me. In the brief tête a tête this non-native bragged of his Kashmiri ancestry and claimed having translated and published a renowned Kashmiri mystic poetess into English and then proceeded to recite out the names of his native Kashmiri informants who helped him in this twenty yearlong project. This made me curious and as I trawled the net to look for this worthy’s corpus of work I came across his attempts at penning bizarrely ersatz poetry. The fact that it had taken him twenty years to accomplish the Kashmiri poetess project gave me an inkling of his IQ level but it also made something else very clear to me.
In the end it was not Gaash’s lot but the self-serving curators and purveyors of their mediocre talents who continued to leave their pathologised markings on the vale’s intellectual domains for the future; a low self-esteem saddled crowd of dinosaurs, quite happy to be patronized and being native informants for others. It wasn’t a one off instance, their attitudinal descendants having inherited their thin skins, trivial prejudices and stamp sized canvases pitching their tents around and coming to the fore.
What if Gaash and many others like him hadn’t suffered censure and marginalisation? Would our society have achieved a higher qualitative edge with regards to its intellectual output? It is a counterfactual argument, I guess, that can only beget a sterile debate. One can only surmise that Gaash and many others like him had been born at a wrong place and at a wrong time and his efforts to endow a 1950s Parisian coffee shop intellectualism to his store meant little beyond the confines of his shop. Perhaps Gaash had realized this long time before I did; but he never turned reclusive or indifferent to his intellectual quests; by perseverance Gaash made sure that the shadow of abandonment would never hover over his posterity or what he had set out to do. He would remain, in his posterity’s gaze, a relentless man in search of himself no matter what its price be. I am sure Gaash would have wanted no finer Epitaph!
Khalid Mir is a Kashmiri surgeon based in Dublin, Ireland. With a deep and abiding interest in History and Philosophy, he divides time by indulging in his passion for writing and practicing his skills. His anthology of Urdu poetry, Asbaat -e-Khudi, was published in 2012 and a non-fiction book is forthcoming.